So you want to start a religion, but you don’t want to end up like “The People’s Temple” or “Heaven’s Gate” cult? You want it to last through the ages. Well have I got news for you! There’s a little known secret that the rules of evolution apply to religious faiths, too. The success of the most persistent mind viruses can be traced to certain… you might say “genetic” characteristics that have allowed them to survive the human condition, the rules of physics and requirements of “life”.
Act on these seven tips and people may be singing your praises forever!
- Stand on the shoulders of giants.
- Be fruitful and multiply.
- Use it or lose it. Feasts, obligations to repeat.
- Think in circles.
- Foster a persecution complex. (See think in circles)
- Demand tribute. (Tithings.)
- Guarantee results that can never be checked out.
Stand on Giants:
The first thing that should be obvious in looking at the evolution of religious sects is that those that tell the rest of the world they are wrong, quickly die. The surviving religious viruses co-opt existing belief systems so they can survive until they are ready to pounce and destroy the host.
A proof, viewing a subset of all the examples: Christianity adopted most pagan holidays, then rebranded. Every major Christian holiday overlays a previous pagan celebration of the seasons. The New Minstrel Christies also adopted the Old Testament (rather than fight the Jews directly), but added a “New Revelation.” Mohammed followed suit, revealing a new and “final” reveleation from God in the Q’uran, but kept the “We are people of the book” line to prevent the Jews and Christians from totally wiping them out before they could establish. Mormons came along and did the same, carefully not offending Jews, or Christians while adding yet another “New and Final Testament of Jesus Christ.” Then they had to migrate to Utah just to survive.
Be part of the in group, don’t make yourself an out-group — until you have enough members, money and lawyers to defend yourself or kill the opposition outright. Until that point, be a religion of peace, or ecumenically suggest you’re just a minor variation from what the majority professes, and we all worship the same thing anyway, right?
Sex. Fruit. Multiply.
You must establish rules that will foster growth. Remember, religion is a long game. Generations. You don’t have to try to recruit everybody now. Simply breed hard enough to grow your ranks, and maintain prohibitions against leaving the faith or marrying outside it. Re-capitulate this by indoctrinating your children and preventing them from thinking there is any other way to be.
Ah, heck… throw in a prohibition against leaving the faith, and some “Grand Commission” mandating that your believers go out and recruit more.
Now, I hesitate to add this because it seems obvious, but many failures before you have not paid attention: The opposite of “be fruitful and multiply” is “Don’t have suicide pacts as central to your doctrine.” That’s right, if you want a faith to die off, the best way to achieve it is if you make it a central tenet that salvation relies on killing yourself.
Let’s be clear: I’m not making any claims on whether or not your belief system is true, but about whether or not you can make it survive here on Earth. I have no proof that the Heaven’s Gate members didn’t actually join the mother ship behind the Hale-Bopp comet, and that they are not this very minute enraptured in their eternal bliss.
But I do know that their cult is not surviving on earth.
Use it or Lose It: Tell the Story!
Memories are our beliefs. Install them, refresh them. Memories fade. Unused memories no longer inform action, and your believers will begin to believe they do not matter. SO… it is imperative that you establish a set of practices that constantly remind your followers of why they are who they are. Story telling, re-enactments of famous moments, ritual holidays, weekly observance/ritual, daily mandatory prayers. All are good. The surviving religions tell their stories over, and over, and over while insisting their members profess their faith out loud, to exercise the belief/memory muscles required to sustain a religious group. (It also preys on peer pressure and group-think, but that’s less important.)
Think in Circles
Sometimes human minds go all wonky and start asking questions, prying at inconsistencies. All of the surviving religions have evolved a strong set of circular defenses. Be sure to establish “deflectors” that catch a mind coming off the track, and re-direct it to the straight and narrow as quickly as possible. Circular reasoning.
A couple great examples (we have neither time, nor space, to cover all of the circular defense mechanisms): What if the Bible is just a book, not God’s divine word? Tell your followers to read the Bible, where it says that it IS God’s divine word. But what if it’s not? See the Bible, where it says it IS God’s divine word… See how easy?
What about new thinking, reason, my experience? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5 (OOh… side note — Come up with authoritative sounding references. Very impressive. Citing Chapter and Verse appeals to the human tendency to fall for appeals to authority.)
What about following my conscience? I can follow an informed conscience. So, I only have to inform it by reading lots of stuff, right? No, only the books approved of by the Catholic Church. (My personal example, other faiths have other mechanisms)
Distract your followers with mystery. If God is good, why is there evil? “God works in mysterious ways.” I prayed, but didn’t get what I ask for. Maybe God doesn’t answer prayers? “God always answers. Sometimes the answer is no.”
Wake up! This is important. Are you sure you really want to establish a lasting religion? You’re looking a bit sleepy. The next essential is that you have prophetic verses in your scripture that say, in essence, “If anyone says you’re wrong or attacks you, that just proves you’re right.”
This is an extension of circular reasoning, but a central element of surviving. A successful religion needs motivated fighters, and what motivates a fighter better than an irrational fear he or she is being attacked? If your followers understand that when people start calling them loony nut-bags it is merely a sign of how perfectly they are attaining heaven, you’re on your way to retention, zealotry and willing self-sacrifice in the name of preserving your legacy.
“Oh Tithings of comfort and Joy.”
I know, Irony. I’m telling you all this for free. But then, I’m not seeking to establish a long-term faith group. For those who aspire to that, it is essential that you establish a funding mechanism. Salvation has a price, and so does your ministerial dwelling, your jet, and your second and third wives’ boob jobs.
And you don’t want this funding stream to dry up, so you must institute some leniency.
If someone can’t afford a lot, it’s better to keep them around to maintain your census, than to kick them out for non-payment. Besides, you can rope them into volunteer work and extract the value that way.
Or, say, if a sinner strays you have a mechanism for welcoming them back into the fold. Confession, absolution, re-baptism… any way to let your followers know that while you did not condone their sojourn into the world of non-believing apostates, you’re willing under the Grace of God to accept them and their tithes back into the fold. The wallet fold.
Promises of Heaven, and Threats of Hell.
Finally, and really this might have been said earlier, you need carrots and sticks that simultaneously cannot be validated, AND which justify inevitable misery in this life. The dominant mono-theisms have mastered this act.
On the carrot side, you have heaven and promises of eternal salvation (bliss, spent with your relatives and family… comedic fodder for generations; I can’t stand my family now, why would I want to spend eternity with them? If you don’t want this to bite you in the ass, you’d better have scriptural underpinnings for how important family is and how horrible it is when they die… except that you’ll see them again in heaven.) Sell the eventual rewards. The sky is the limit. Make up anything you want. 72 virgins, eternal bliss, whatever. No matter what horror you suffer in this life, you will receive infinitely more pleasure in the afterlife… as long as you stay true to my teachings and keep tithing. And reproducing. And stoning the others.
Even the carrot is a bit of a stick, if you can scare your acolytes with fear of losing it. But fear of losing bliss is not enough. The stick must also be scary as hell. Literally. If your followers won’t abide your rules, they face horrendous and eternal suffering, which you can begin to exemplify for them in this life through shame, beatings, ostracism, shunning, and in some faiths — killing the apostate as an example for anyone else who might be considering a walk on the wild side.” Sometimes you have to have your loss-leaders. “You will suffer in the afterlife… but just in case, let me assure you we’ll fuck you up in this life, too, if you dare leave.”
Conclusions and Benediction
These are the observed essentials. I cannot claim that this is the complete list of characteristics your new religion must embody to survive long term, but these are a good start. Steer clear of the failures of the 99% of sects that have failed, and you too can have a long lasting religion. I wish you well in your quest for adulation, control, in-group sexual benefits and immeasurable financial wealth in this life.